The heel hook is probably the most feared submission in the martial arts world, and rightly so. It is banned in some submission tournaments at the novice and beginner levels.
This is because the heel hook has the ability to tear knee and ankle ligaments, shatter the tibia, rupture the knee joint, and dislocate the ankle.
The reason why the heel hook is capable of such harm is because it does not rely on hyperextension like other limb submissions, and instead depends on the rapid torquing of the knee in a direction it is not suppose to go.
There is no gradual application of pressure like in an armbar or kneebar. Thus, the nerve endings in the knee aren’t pinched, and bone damage is done before any real sort of pain is felt.
It can be difficult to submit in time when a heel hook is applied properly and efficiently, because one feels that he is not in trouble and then a second later an injury can occur.
A fighter must know when to tap out lest he gets himself hurt, but accidents do happen and competitors aren’t always able to submit before any damage is done.
One problem with the heel hook though, and the major reason why it is not used as often as it could be, is the completion percentage when one goes for it, compared to other more secure submissions, and fighters are understandably hesitant to try a lower-percentage endeavor.
One might not be able to get it locked in properly or isolate his opponent;s body to prevent escape or not apply it quickly enough so that his opponent sees it coming and gets his leg out of the way.
When attempted unexpectedly, such as when a fighter suddenly falls back from the guard into a leglock position or in the middle of a scramble between the two combatants, the heel hook can be a speedy and devastating way to end a fight.
Thus, the element of surprise and the need to tap out quickly when applied means that the heel hook can end a seemingly neutral fight within a couple of seconds.
Sometimes a fighter will go for this submission early in the match, and if he misses then the fight will just end up on the feet again or the guard position will be reversed.
If somebody is en route to losing a decision, a heel hook out of nowhere can turn the tide. A properly executed heel hook will force a tap or generate severe limb damage, and oftentimes there will be consequences even if the fighter taps right away.
Ken Shamrock used this submission in his early bouts to great success, but it soon went out of fashion.
However, I think leglocks in general are making a renaissance in MMA under the auspices of fighters such as Rousimar Palhares, Manny Gamburyan, Joe Lauzon, Masakazu Imanari and others who are not afraid to try a rather unorthodox technique in order to end a fight early and decisively.
On the first episode of The Ultimate Fighter 9, a heel hook ended two fights out of eight and they both occurred during a transition on the ground where the heel hook is an opportunistic move to attempt.
Of course, these two victims may not have had the best submission defense in the world, but even the best can get caught in such a lock if they are not careful.
The heel hook can be harmful but it is legal and can be defended if one is prepared and knows what he is doing.
I think that it will be used more often because the worst that can happen is that a fighter will give up his position on top in the guard or in a scramble, but the potential of stopping the fight and ensuring a tap when done properly often makes it well worth the risk.
Therefore the heel hook’s speed, effectiveness, damage potential, and ability to force a tap and finish the fight unexpectedly are the reasons why I think it is the most underrated and underutilized technique in MMA.
Plus who can forget Ryo Chonan’s epic flying scissor heel hook against Anderson Silva in PRIDE FC, when the Japanese fighter had the current pound-for-pound prince tapping like a river dancer?